When you live in the far south of Germany and you want to enjoy a really good cappuccino, all you need do is to cross Austria, drive up the Brenner pass and decent on the other side to enter Italy. The two-hour drive is a scenic one I particularly enjoy. Once on the other side, we stop at the pretty town of Sterzing. Its main street is lined with medieval townhouses in soft colours. Cafe Häusler is situated near a famous tower and serves the best cakes and coffee in town. But whilst these are very nice, it is of course not the true reason for visiting Sterzing. The real reasons were a church from the early 15th century and a castle dating to the early 12th century. Sterzing sits on one of the most important North-South routes in Europe (more specific: Augsburg in Germany to Venice in Italy). People, ideas and artisans have always travelled on this busy route and through its wealthy towns. What does this have to do with medieval embroidery? Quite a bit!
On an earlier visit to the church of the Holy Spirit, I had seen something in the beautiful frescos painted by Hans von Bruneck in AD 1402. This time, I returned with my good camera to take a better picture. Do you see what captured my attention? Indeed, there are painted patterns in red on a golden background behind some of the saintly figures. Now that sounds familiar. I already knew that embroidered diaper patterns are in fact imitations of luxurious woven cloth that once decorated the walls of churches. These patterns can also be seen in painted pictures of the same time. But I had never before seen a painted basket weave pattern in red and gold on a fresco.
When studying embroidery of a particular historical era it is always a good idea to have an eye for other contemporary artistic disciplines as well. After all, these embroiderers did not work in isolation. Often, painters provided them with their embroidery designs. Knowing the works of famous painters in the area where the embroideries under study originated can often provide stylistic links. Also, when you are familiar with pristine scenes, they can help you when studying badly worn embroidery. When you can identify a fragmentary scene, 'reading' the damaged embroidery becomes so much easier.
And then there was castle Reifenstein. Its current owners, the family of Thurn und Taxis, have lovingly restored it and kept it in its late-medieval original state. You can easily walk the short distance from the town of Sterzing to the castle. Do take the bike lane and not the footpath. That one ends abruptly on the Autostrada. Whilst they do speak German in this part of Italy, it most definitely IS Italy!
The castle has many lovely rooms and you will often be astonished that things have survived for more than 800-years. But two rooms in particular are of special interest to us embroiderers. There is this smaller room off the Kemenate. It was used by the women of the castle for all sorts of textile activities. The current display of spinning wheels and the like is not very old though. However, this is by far the brightest room in the whole castle. And wouldn't it be lovely to sit in one of the window seats and stitch?
Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take a picture of the second room which is of interest to us embroiderers. Its walls are decorated with a very rare late-Gothic (made in AD 1498) fresco painting. It shows foliage in which exotic flowers, saints and people hide (see the bird catchers left of the small window?). Luckily, I found this picture on Wikipedia so that you can at least get an idea.
Now why do these wall paintings resonate with me? I had seen a similar design before! By now you probably know that non-religious medieval embroidery has hardly survived. One of the most spectacular pieces is kept at Musee Cluny in Paris: a horse trapper. Its embroidery was made around AD 1330-1340 and shows foliage in which people hide. This was thus apparently a motive which was more often used in medieval art. It might well have been copied in embroidery for royal courts far more often than what we are aware of.
I hope you enjoyed coming for a real cappuccino with me :)!
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